Zoo City – Lauren Beukes

About the Book
Zinzi has a Sloth on her back, a dirty 419 scam habit and a talent for finding lost things. But when a little old lady turns up dead and the cops confiscate her last paycheck, she’s forced to take on her least favourite kind of job – missing persons.

Being hired by reclusive music producer Odi Huron to find a teenybop pop star should be her ticket out of Zoo City, the festering slum where the criminal underclass and their animal companions live in the shadow of hell’s undertow.

Instead, it catapults Zinzi deeper into the maw of a city twisted by crime and magic, where she’ll be forced to confront the dark secrets of former lives – including her own.

352 pages (paperback)
Published: April 29, 2010
Publishing company: Angry Robot Books
Author’s webpage
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It’s no secret that I’m not a huge fan of urban fantasy. I am fairly sick of the same story being told over and over again with different names. It’s a genre flooded with books about the tough-yet-jaded girl who meets the dark-and-mysterious guy. After plenty of circling around each other finally manage to fall in love. I have almost no interest in that. I’ve heard that before urban fantasy was hijacked, it was different and more enjoyable. I didn’t believe people who said that. It didn’t seem possible to me that there was a “before” with urban fantasy, a time when things were different and would appeal to me more. I’ve looked for those books, and I never quite found them.
Until now.
Granted, Zoo City falls into the “now” category of things with urban fantasy because it is recently written, but the style of writing and overall plot is definitely so far removed from any other urban fantasy book I’ve had thrown my way recently that it is lumped in with the “before urban fantasy was hijacked” category, in my mind. Thus, it was amazingly refreshing and sparked some hope in me for this genre. All is not lost, ladies and gentlemen. Not when books like Zoo City are being written.
Beukes’ style of writing is immediately eye catching. Where most writers strive for smooth and fluid prose, Beukes seems to embrace a more rugged style; a style which seems to perfectly encompass the rough and hard-of-luck protagonist, Zinzi. This gives Zoo City a more original and impromptu feel. It’s a story that feels like it is being told spur-of-the-moment by a woman who has had a hard life and still lives a life no one would really want. It’s a dirty and rugged world and things happen unexpectedly. Beukes style of writing reflects that, and embodies it perfectly.
As I mentioned, the world Zinzi lives in is fairly messy, and there is some gore and violence which readers should be made aware of before hand, but none of this is gratuitous. Everything Beukes writes about is carefully calculated and inserted into the Zoo City. It’s a refreshing change from many other books I’ve read recently. Nothing is wasted, and thus, a fairly short book with slightly over 300 pages total can pack a huge punch.
There are a lot of things about Zoo City which make it unique, but perhaps it is what categorizes this book as urban fantasy which sticks out most in my mind. Those who commit felonies in Beukes world are marked by the undertow, which saddles each criminal with an animal familiar (for lack of a better term) and also gives them each a supernatural ability. This is, perhaps, what I enjoyed most about Zoo City. Beukes took an incredibly unique concept and crafted it to perfectly fit the book she was writing.
Perhaps the use of these animals fascinated me most because they show the incredible balance Beukes utilized while writing this book. Everything seems to have a positive and negative aspect. While the animals are a public and obvious mark of a previous wrong, they are also a pride to the people who carry them and help individuals gain street cred. There aren’t really (though there are a few) blacks and whites in Zoo City. Almost everything seems to be balanced on the edge of a knife and the perception of the reader can throw it either way, positive or negative. It was realistic, dirty, gritty and sometimes hard to face.
Zoo City takes place in South Africa, which is not a location many people write books about. While I did have a hard time with some of the terms used in the book, they aren’t overdone, or used in such a way that the layman, such as myself, couldn’t figure them out. The new and unusual location she chose as a backdrop for Zoo City ended up being a huge positive. Not only did the plot, the tight and dirty writing style and the relentless balance of good and bad in each character and situation enrapture me, but the location itself was tantalizing.
Zoo City is a quick read. The plot is incredibly fast paced. The world is shockingly well developed and easy to become wrapped up in. However, it’s Beukes shamelessly gritty writing style which seems to stick out most. She perfectly embodies the dark, almost hopeless world and the breakneck pace of events through her prose. However, despite this, she doesn’t allow Zoo City to drown in darkness. There is plenty of light wrapped in the darkness keeping everything artfully balanced. Everything in these pages has a purpose and specific point toward the overall plot. Beukes is a ruthless and cunning author who has filled a book with shades of gray, violence, murder, darkness and even hope. Zoo City is, perhaps, one of the most unique and engrossing books I’ve read recently, and highly deserves any praise it gets.
5/5 stars